Accessibility to affordable drugs is a matter of life and death

  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 21 Dec 2021

MY cancer was diagnosed as Stage Four in April 2021. As if the diagnosis was not bad enough, the treatment cost that followed was just as agonising as the treatment. The letter “Fighting for affordable medicines” (Views, The Star, Dec 14) resonates with the hopes of many cancer patients, like me.

Initial investigations to be carried out on the primary site of the tumour at the public hospital were met with long queues. But it was imperative that the test results be known ASAP to help the specialists zero in on the appropriate treatment. Cancer won’t wait.

Private hospitals were the only alternative for fast and latest therapy, but at a price. My treatment cost for the past seven months, has escalated to RM100,000, or averaging RM15,000 monthly and still continuing. This includes specialist fees, medication and imaging costs.

The biggest chunk went to medication. For targeted therapy, just the drugs alone cost RM7,000 to RM10,000 month. The cost figures given in the Dec 14 letter are realistic. Even if you were to seek treatment in public hospitals, you may have to buy your drugs yourself.

Cancer drugs are very potent. Not only do they kill cancer cells, they also damage healthy cells and tissue. Side effects are common – skin rashes, dry skin, diarrhoea, gastritis, urinary tract infections, dental problems and pneumonia are just a few. Treating side effects also has repercussions, most of which are attributed to lowered immunity. More medication and specialist visits are necessary to keep the side effects tolerable yet not interfering with the cancer treatment. My dental fees alone cost above RM5,100.

Aside from drugs there are the regular scans (CT and PET scans, ultrasounds and MRIs) to monitor treatment efficacy and metastasis. Each time, a scan can cost up to RM2,000 or more. Based on the scan, doctors will review the treatment protocol. To be fair to them, they cannot tell if one size fits all. Treatment is on a case to case basis depending on responsiveness to drugs. It is impossible to budget for the treatment cost.

As the letter suggests, there is a drug monopoly that controls the supply and pricing of drugs protected by patent rights.

Malaysian health authorities should then look into ways and means to lower the costs of drugs and treatment for all citizens. A caring government should be able take the following steps to bring down the price of drugs and treatment:

> Through international forums, Malaysia should join the many other voices calling on nations to support the fight for affordable cancer drugs and treatment (as done for Covid-19 vaccines).

> Negotiate directly at the source for better pricing of drugs and equipment.

> Have a subsidy scheme for cancer drugs and treatment, not only for pensioners but for all citizens.

> Review the medical insurance schemes to ensure they are more liberal about claims.

> Incentivise drug companies to set up local or regional manufacturing plants to reduce production and logistics costs.

> Encourage the development and production of generic drugs locally.

It is common knowledge that carcinogens are found in food preparation, food production, preservatives, water treatment, pesticides, cigarette smoke, and asbestos and other hazardous materials. It is the role of health authorities to ensure the use of known carcinogens are kept to a safe level if not entirely banned. Prevention is better than cure. And health education should start early in primary schools.

Cancer does not choose its victims, rich or poor, young or old. Accessibility to affordable drugs and treatment definitely improves the chances of survival and a better quality of life.


Petaling Jaya

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